Before me I have a small loft. For me, it is a space to store the few suitcases that fit inside. For some Lebanese, it could be the maid’s room. This is one of the first impacts that Beirut greeted me with as soon as I settled in. I had just rented an apartment in the popular Hamra neighborhood and the doorman, satisfied, would show me it. I told him that the hole above the sink would be very good for putting things in. But Samir answered smiling.
“No, woman, no.” Here you can sleep maid.RELATED
-My what? I asked surprised.
The hiding place that would barely fit a person huddled was designed to be the resting place of the domestic worker.
“If you hire one, we’ll put a ladder on you and that’s it, like the neighbors downstairs have!” He would say to me, as if it were a bargain.
But behind that conversation between the tenant and the doorman was hiding a terrible scourge that went beyond the attic. A den that at that time I could not even imagine that it was much more comfortable than the real option of sleeping crouched under the kitchen sink, next to the garbage cans, or out in the open on a roof.
Many of these cleaning women suffer not only labor exploitation, but also physical and sexual abuse. And what is the consequence of so much silenced brutality? In Lebanon, on average, at least two maids commit suicide every week, according to various local and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW). At least eight women dead a month. It is the only way they see to escape from those who have become their owners.
– When I told them that I am a human being and that they had to treat me well, they threatened me that if I didn’t shut my mouth, they would throw me off the balcony.
Benchymer (the fictitious name she asks us to refer to her by) has fled before the family fulfilled what she knew was not a simple warning. And she has done so without waiting for the inhuman abuse she suffered to literally push her to throw herself off the balcony where she slept every night, on top of a floor flooded with water when it rained. Some of her friends, desperate and not knowing how to get out of the house in which they were kept, have found no other solution than to jump over the railing or take a handful of pills.
Without tears and without doing any drama – despite being so – this girl recounts the nightmare that her dream of coming to Beirut has turned into. At the age of 23, he left Ethiopia and his family, who survive in a small town in a rural area, far away. The priority was to send them money every month and, if I could, save something to go back and study a university degree later. Her goal since she was little was to be a lawyer. He confesses it to me one of the few times when I sense a smile. And, without having studied law, he has learned a lot about law. But in order to avoid them and survive rules that legally kill those who are like her.
Benchymer arrived as one more immigrant and, like so many others, has ended up becoming illegal, in a flight from justice. Taking advantage of the move from one house to another that he had to clean, he dared to do what he had thought so many times: jump out of the moving car and run. She has been left without a passport or any other type of documentation, because, as soon as she landed at the Beirut airport months ago, first the agency that recruited her and then the family assigned to her confiscated some papers that she has not been able to recover. If she came back to look for them, they could lock her up again and punish her for leaving, hand her over to the police and have her imprisoned, or ultimately deported to her native country. Now she is not free, but at least she consoles herself with rage, she will never be a slave again.
– They didn’t give me food, I was very hungry and I froze sleeping on the balcony. They gave me to drink the dirty water that they had left over from cleaning because drinking water, in Lebanon, has to be bought. I was almost always sick, but they never took me to the hospital or gave me the medications I needed. Because of that, now I have chronic stomach problems, for life.
She also suffered from labor exploitation: she had no days off a week, even though it was not what she had been promised, and she worked 20 hours a day. He did it by serving in the house where he was interned and in the apartments of other relatives or acquaintances who, without any explanation, also assigned him. They withheld some monthly payments and deducted from his meager salary the crumbs of food that they threw on the ground as if he were a small animal. Pieces of dry bread, peelings of fruits and vegetables … She could only leave home to work, and she was forbidden to meet friends or call for help. The family confiscated his cell phone and only left it to communicate with his family and, even so, when he spoke with them, they wanted to be present. They had to make sure he didn’t explain anything to them about the kidnapping.
This is an excerpt from the book Mujeres Valientes (Peninsula), by journalist Txell Feixas.